Fresh off another Super Bowl win, the Patriots are approaching the offseason with an uncharacteristic aggressiveness. The Pats have largely built their 16-year dynasty by drafting well, knowing when to flip high-priced veterans, and accumulating draft picks before it was cool. (Having arguably the greatest quarterback and head coach of all time goes without saying.) New England has certainly dipped its toes into the free agency waters in the past, but this year it dove in headfirst, even at the expense of its draft capital. What gives? It’s all about timing.
To review, let’s take a look at the major movin’ and shakin’ the Pats have done in the past week:
- Traded a 2017 fourth-round pick to the Colts for tight end Dwayne Allen and a 2017 sixth-round pick.
- Signed ex-Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore for $40 million guaranteed.
- Traded 2017's first- and third-round picks to the Saints for wideout Brandin Cooks and a 2017 fourth-round pick.
- Traded 2017's second-round pick to the Panthers for defensive end Kony Ealy and a 2017 third-round pick.
- Signed ex-Bengals running back/special teamer Rex Burkhead.
- Re-signed inside linebacker Dont’a Hightower for a reported $17 million guaranteed.
For the Patriots, this qualifies as gluttonous. But as Albert Breer noted over at The MMQB, the Pats “really just did what [they] always [do]: assess and find other teams’ misfits worth pursuing.” As Breer put it:
The Patriots have done this sort of thing in the past, identifying how guys like Mike Vrabel and Wes Welker were undervalued in some years, and why guys like Randy Moss and Corey Dillon were available in other years. And it doesn’t always work. Chad Johnson and Albert Haynesworth are examples of that.
Allen, Ealy, and Burkhead were basically discarded by their previous teams; Cooks was noticeably unhappy in New Orleans; and Gilmore was the kind of corner the Pats saw a fit for. But New England also did what it always does by planning ahead. This just happened to be the year a little bit of spending was warranted.
What the Patriots have done is add a deep-ball threat for Tom Brady (Cooks), a tight end to replace Martellus Bennett (Allen), a cornerback to take over for Logan Ryan (Gilmore), a defensive end to assume Chris Long’s old job (Ealy), and a “four-down” back (Burkhead). They also retained the fulcrum of their defense in Hightower, one of the last truly effective three-down linebackers in the league. Even though Hightower played footsie with the Steelers and Jets before deciding to return to Foxboro, the Pats got him at a relative bargain because he’s a jack-of-all-trades who can line up inside or outside, to play the run, in coverage, or to blitz. That varied skill-set makes him ideally suited for the Patriots’ varied schemes even though he might have been less valuable to a team with a more specific need.
Why now? The Patriots entered free agency with more than $60 million in salary cap space. Which was by design: Last year, they traded away two of their best defenders, linebackers Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins, to acquire draft picks before they’d be faced with having to ante up on veteran contracts.
But having a $60 million war chest in 2017 served a purpose: This is the first of the new four-year cycle in which the collective bargaining agreement requires teams to spend a cumulative 89 percent of their cap space. The Pats, like every other team, will have to spend in the years ahead. They just got a jump-start on it now, when the rules provided the perfect opportunity to begin doing so.
This year’s spending spree leaves the Patriots without any picks in the first or second rounds, and with just seven picks overall—their lowest total since 2013, which, not coincidentally, was the beginning of the previous four-year required cash-spending period.
But the Pats may not be done yet because they still have another chip to play in quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. The Browns, who are brimming with draft assets, reportedly still have the hots for Garoppolo, despite an earlier report to the contrary. Brady turns 40 this summer, but it would make sense for the Pats to try to cash in on Garoppolo now, because he’s slated to become an unrestricted free agent next year. They’ve also got Jacoby Brissett possibly waiting in the wings, and Brissett still has three years remaining on his third-round rookie deal. Again, timing.
The last bit of perfect timing for the Pats involves Super Bowl 49 hero Malcolm Butler, a restricted free agent. The Pats have offered Butler a first-round tender, which would pay him $3.9 million for one season, after which he can become an unrestricted free agent, free to make whatever the market might dictate. Butler can negotiate with other teams right now, but his restricted status—the result of his three years’ service time as an undrafted player—entitles the Pats to a right of first refusal, and to a first-round pick as compensation if he were to accept another offer. Butler had dinner last night with the Saints, but the Pats have drawn a hard line in the sand, because they can. They’re gaming Butler’s service time because it’s what they do. Butler has proven to be the perfect low-price replacement for Darrelle Revis. But the Patriots don’t do sentimentality; they simply know how to strike for what they want, and when to do it. Until proven otherwise, there’s little reason to doubt them.